How Anxiety Causes Lack of Air/Breathlessness

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How Anxiety Causes Lack of Air/Breathlessness

Anxiety causes symptoms that can not only impact your life - they can actually cause more anxiety. Anxiety is the type of condition that often becomes self-sustaining, causing you to fear for your health and wellbeing in a way that hurts your day to day comfort levels.

A common anxiety symptom is a feeling of having a lack of air. Sometimes referred to as shortness of breath or breathlessness, a lack of air is a harmless condition but can result in its own symptoms that may make your anxiety attacks worse.

The Lack of Air Feeling

Lack of air starts with your fight or flight system. When your fight or flight system is activated, it causes you to breathe more quickly. This is actually to your advantage - when you're getting ready to fight or flee, you need any extra air you can get to power your heart and prepare you to run.

Hyperventilation and Anxiety

But you don't run because you're not actually in danger. Instead, you simply sit there and breathe too quickly. This causes what's known as hyperventilation, which translates to "over breathing."

Many people mistakenly believe that hyperventilation is a lack of oxygen. But hyperventilation is a lack of carbon dioxide. When you breathe too quickly, you breathe out more carbon dioxide than you have a chance to create. Eventually, your blood becomes over-oxygenated (too much oxygen), and your blood ventricles start to contract.

Paradoxical Effects of Hyperventilation

But here's where it gets tricky. Even though hyperventilation causes a lack of carbon dioxide, the symptoms of hyperventilation are nearly identical to what you would experience if you lacked oxygen.

In other words, hyperventilation causes a paradoxical effect. It makes you feel like you're not taking in enough oxygen (i.e., a lack of air) so you try to breathe in more. Unfortunately, because your body doesn't need the oxygen, your stomach isn't able to expand as much, and this creates a feeling as though you lack air. The symptoms tend to get worse and worse as you continue to try to breathe in more air than you need without regaining your carbon dioxide levels

Eventually, this can lead to a full-blown panic attack, or at the very least an increase in your anxiety. Hyperventilation, and this feeling as though you lack air are the primary causes of many of the worst symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Symptoms of Hyperventilation

It should also be noted that hyperventilation also causes its own symptoms and that these symptoms can also increase anxiety and panic attacks. In addition to feeling like you have a lack of air, hyperventilation can also cause:

  • Lightheadedness Your body reduces blood flow to the brain when you hyperventilate.
  • Rapid Heartbeat Your heart speeds up to move blood around your body.
  • Chest Pains Your heart has to work harder, and your ventricles constrict, causing chest pains.
  • Tingling Blood is taken away from your hands and feet, leading to tingling and weakness.

Don't forget that you may also have this incredible urge to yawn or take deeper breaths (because of that lack of air feeling), and you may also start belching or burping more as well.

Now, it should be noted that despite these symptoms, hyperventilation is not dangerous. Rarely there can be a few problems, especially if you have a severe heart condition, and certainly, panic attacks are extremely difficult to live with, but hyperventilation itself is not considered anything to worry about. It simply feels terrible.

Other Causes of Hyperventilation

Also, hyperventilation can be caused by other issues related to anxiety, all of them leading to a lack of air. These include:

  • Hyperventilation Syndrome Some people find that their body starts hyperventilating even when they don't have anxiety. That's because their body has somehow trained itself to breathe inefficiently (usually as a result of stress) and it starts to hyperventilate simply because it's breathing wrong. That's something that can be hard to change, but not impossible.
  • Thinking About Breathing Inefficient breathing is the key here, and some inefficient breathing isn't about breathing quickly - it's from thinking about breathing. There are those with anxiety that often think about each breath, and when you think about it, it becomes temporarily manual. People tend to believe their bodies need more air than it does, and so they breathe more than their body needs until they oversaturate their bloodstream.

There are also health conditions like asthma that can lead to rapid breathing and a lack of air, and since asthma and related conditions are scary, that can also cause anxiety.

It's important to note that you should always visit a doctor if you feel like lack of air is a problem. Even though it is a common anxiety symptom, there is simply little reason to leave something like this to chance. See a doctor, and rule out any potentially more dangerous issues that may be causing these same symptoms first, that way you can rest your mind a little bit on your heart and lung health.

How to Overcome a Lack of Air From Anxiety

Once it's been established that this lack of air is anxiety related, there are several strategies that you can try to start decreasing it. Consider the following:

  • Go For a Walk Anytime you feel like you lack air, see if you can get up and go for a walk. Many people find the lightheadedness makes them feel like they need to sit down, but walking gets the blood moving and helps your body make a bit more carbon dioxide. If you're feeling up for walking, try to take a walk outside for a bit.
  • Breathe Slower Slow down your breathing dramatically to improve your body's production of carbon dioxide. Ideally, see if you can fight the urge to breathe in more air and take slow, controlled breaths that last about 15 seconds (5 seconds in, hold for 3 seconds, 7 seconds out). This usually doesn't reduce the feeling of hyperventilation once it's started, but it can reduce the intensity.
  • Practice Breathing Many experts recommend practicing breathing as well. Consider yoga or meditation classes, as these go over proper breathing habits and may help you retrain your body to breathe normally in a more healthy and efficient manner.
  • Distract Your Mind Thought plays a fairly significant role in this type of breathing. You become so focused on how you breathe that you tend to breathe more and experience the symptoms worse. That's why something that can distract your thoughts may be very advantageous. One example is to try to call up someone you like, such as a friend or family. Talking on the phone tends to be very distracting mentally so that you're not experiencing such severe symptoms.

Once you've started feeling this lack of air, it tends to be too late to stop it. In a way, you need to get your breathing under control as best you can, and then wait it out for the symptoms to go away.

That's why the most important thing you can do for your breathing is prevention, and you can prevent it by learning to control your anxiety.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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